Personas What are They Good For – Absolutely Nothing!


Three Children Eating Icecream from the Boardwalk Sculpture Festival May 4 2008

A while back  Matthew Hodgson had a  glance over the usefulness of personas, I have to agree with what he had to say, they tend to be under used.

I have encountered the odd projects where they has been a distinct undercurrent to just jettison personas altogether. After all what are they good for … absolutely nothing.

Okay before you all start jumping up and down. I’m going to add to Matthew’s persona usage list and hopefully dispel this myth. I’m not going to explain how to build a persona, there are plenty of  books and articles on the web that have covered this.

  • Matching the Test Participants

    So you have researched the user base for the project, interviewed a bucket load of users, build a few mental models.  Condensed the user pool in to a series of archetypal personas.   May seem a little obvious but have you considered using the personas as a  matching tool on the users that are participating in the user testing later in the project. This assumes you have personas done at this stage.   Okay it’s not as hard and dry as that, but it does help with just giving you a quick idea.

  • Personas for Content

    Ever considered that persona’s should be used as a reference when writing the content of a site.  After all they are reflecting the audience.  Sure you are going to write the content in one solid consistent voice  and all that, but how do you know that this content is going to be applicable to the users of the site.   Now if you write the content  with a reference to the personality, interests and abilities projected in the personas you can at least be assured that your are focusing on the needs of audience as well as the information requirement aspect.

  • Google is a Persona

    I have worked on projects where the SEO factor of the site was critical.  To the point that to ensure this was reinforced I created a persona for Google.   This user  was particularly finicky on what they could read information wise,  But they where extremely responsive when they found the right information.

  • Designing with Personas looking on

    Now, I’m not talking about any wireframe of grey-line designing. I’m talking about the real designing, the one with colour, pictures etc, the graphical elements.  You know the one.  Well to be honest this is often done is isolation. Sure you take into account the wireframes, and the various requirements. However it would be good to have someone to mentally talk over the design with, before you get to the client or user testing.  Someone to just confirm or tell you that your design is shit. This is where the personas come in.   Okay they are not real people, but they are the next best thing.

  • Coding Conversations with Personas

    Traditionally this has been the phase of the developmental process you write personas for.  They are used so they can be referenced during the developmental process.  Like a pseudo walk though with the persona being referenced.   But have you also considered taking the persona to a deeper level and having them virtually “question” why you have the interface working a certain way.  Why you need those fields at all.

    With the persona’s you can start to question if parts of the system you are developing is needed at all.  After all people in general respond better to simple systems. Hence personas become great for confirming a walkthrough of a system before you code  anything.

  • Ninja Personas

    The researching of personas can often be the problem that we all encounter.   The client can’t see the value, so unless you are bundling it all as just another item in the project, it will often get the flick.  So what do you do.  This is where Ninja Personas come into play, or personas by stealth. 

    What you do is leverage all those participants you are testing with.  When you are chatting with the participants, take a few more notes, ask a few adhoc questions. Do this and after a while you will start to see personality traits, scenarios, and the like. In short the personas you are looking for.  But what if the client will not do any testing.   Well much that I hate them, the fake non researched personas are as good a reference , better than nothing at all.

Still why do we tend to just tick personas off and throw them in the corner instead of letting them become part of the project proper.  There are a number of factors:

  • Personas without data

    It does happen, the budget is small, there is no scope for user interviews, not even just a handful, so you are left with personas that are basically plucked out of the imagination and experiences of the IA. Not the ideal solution.  Hence the Ninja Personas above should be applied to this situation.

  • Quick and Dirty Sketches

    Again if the budget is tight this can happen too. You do the research and document, but still the personas end up as a series of quick and dirty sketches.  They have no major body, no substance, no detail, no scenarios.  Nothing that can really be used to get an inside into the head of the persona. 

    Really the only solution here is to ensure the personas are completed even if it’s later in the IA. You can at least pass them on to the design and development team.

    Now if you are in an agile cycle, quick and dirty is good for round one, but you should have the personas finalised after a few cycles.

  • Have Users, Why Bother

    If you have considerable user input on a project, as you should, you can tend to get an attitude from management that is anti-personas.  This attitude tends to be from the assumption that you have such pool of really to use participants for testing and so on that you can just ask them when and whatever you want.  It is assumed as well that this will be there at anytime during the the project.

    The solution here is to remind management that access to real people is good, but it is expensive in the longer term for every minor issue. The use of personas is the solution.

  • Insult to Developers

    All to often the personas are supported and used throughout the IA process, but there is a lack of synergy with the development team and they will reject the use of personas as an insult to their ability.  They have often been working with the developmental process they have been using for years and frankly are usually entrenched in the methods and developmental techniques.  So why should they use personas and change everything.

    The solution here is simple and works best if you are on an agile developmental cycle.   Just get the developers to sit in as observers on a few rounds of usability testing.  This humbling experience will usually make them realise that it is the users they making the system for.   Not having the users present 24/7 allows them to consider the scenarios from the view of the next best thing – the persona.

  • Separation of Scenario from Persona

    This one is open to debate, should a persona contain an extended profile information on the user type of should it have the details of the several (or at least one) scenario which the user finds themselves in.

    The separation of the two, can lead to the devaluing of the personas. Potential users of these personas will discard them as not  contain any information they can directly use on the site.  In a way the scenario component allows people to make the leap from the abstract description to a real world and a plausible event they can use and relate to.

So what do you think, should we really just tick the box and move on. Or even bother with them at all. 

Or are you like me using them as a reference when the users aren’t there I look over my shoulder and say “er that’s a stupid thing to do…”?

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